Orginally published on Sunday, July 29, 2007 at 1:45 AM
by Earl Creps
Missional is an easier word to use than to define. I’m hearing the term used in at least three ways: 1. Emerging: Some of my friends in the Emerging Church might refer to something like reading culture through Scripture and Scripture through culture so that our context and faith community actually shape both faith and practice (to a certain extent). Their argument would be that this dynamic has always operated in Church history (e.g., the Jerusalem church was quite Jewish and operated effectively without a New Testament) and is resisted mainly by repressed, Red State Evangelicals. In pragmatic terms, this definition might incarnate itself as a house church where the faith is held by dialoging about it and acting on it, rather than just receiving authoritative monologues on Sunday morning. Christianity, in this view, is held together like the solar system—by the gravitational power of God’s being at the center and the historical momentum of our various traditions as the orbit around that center. The Scriptures reveal these realities to the Church and the world.
2. Conservative: Hearing this kind of talk, my conservative friends immediately go to DefCon 5. The notion that a missional ministry is one in which “the world” has a voice seems to them like a formula for declension and disaster. If our culture is becoming postmodern or post-whatever does that mean that we must develop a post-gospel? Should German theologians have developed a Fascist gospel to fit into Nazi Germany in the 1930’s?
My Emergent friends shake their heads and remind their conservative peers that preachers of the “gospel” as shaped by modernity have supported wars, slavery, and greed all over the planet. Apparently the modern worldview takes prisoners so effectively that those in its grip are not even aware of it.
3. Mainstream: But this debate isn’t the only one in town. My more mainstream friends sometimes understand the “M” word as a newer synonym for “relevant.” To them, the issue is one of holding onto a fixed message while adapting to the look and feel of their context to create culture-current ministry. In this sense, being missional seems like a culture-mirroring, becoming “all things to all men,” for the purpose of a renewed emphasis on outreach.
A case study in this definition might be the 85% of church plants and young adult ministries I have visited that are made up of the following elements: soft electric rock worship, conversational Bible teaching, strong coffee in the lobby, video announcements, casual dress, urban/mid-town vibe, and small groups. I smile when they tell me they’re “reinventing church.”
All of these things are fine, but my Emergent friends are right when they point out that these components are mainly updates of late-twentieth century seeker technology. However, in defense of the mainstream I would have to say that I’ve seen examples of their approach that seem very genuine, very loving, and very effective.
4. Motivators: Somewhere among these options would be a cluster of ministries with pretty conservative theology and good hearts who have adopted the M word almost as a slogan. For them, missional means being very, very evangelistic. My concern with this use of the term is that being missional can come to mean “the way we used to be… except on steroids.”
Lacking theological roots, sloganizing the M word may short-circuit the possibility of really thinking through our theology of what the Church is here to be and do. In other words, we might gain some momentum, but lose a shot at a reformation (at least a local one) in the process.
I’m reminded of ministries that use words like “team” or “small group” to describe every time two or more people stand near each other at church. They gain the promotional value of new vocabulary, but lose the chance to implement real teams or form functioning small faith communities.
These are some thoughts on some of the ways the M word is being used out there today and why.
How do you understand being “missional”?
About the Author: Earl Creps has spent several years visiting congregations that are attempting to engage emerging culture. He directs doctoral studies for the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri (http://www.agts.edu). Earl and his wife Janet have pastored three churches, one Boomer, one Builder, and one GenX. He speaks, trains, and consults with ministries around the country. Earl’s book, Off-Road Disciplines: Spiritual Adventures of Missional Leaders, was published by Jossey-Bass/Leadership Network in 2006. Connect with Earl at http://www.earlcreps.com .
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